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'90s FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Make Sure You Close the Deal--Even With Kids

September 22, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many people think the problem with families today is that boomer-yuppie parents are too preoccupied with work to pay proper attention to their children.

On the other hand, negotiations expert Michael Donaldson thinks families would be much happier if parents treated their children more like business associates.

"We have friends, older parents, who talk things to death with their kids. They would never do that in business," said Donaldson, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer, who with his wife, Mimi, a management trainer, has coauthored "Negotiating for Dummies," (IDG Books Worldwide, 1996). While their target audience is upper management wannabes, they say parents are making a terrible mistake by not using the six skills they select as needed for major international and industrial negotiation:

* Preparation

* Setting limits and goals

* Keeping emotional distance

* Listening

* Clear communication

* Closing the deal

Divorced, remarried and father of three grown children, Donaldson said most parents fail to prepare. ("The kids come up and they want to be all empathy and talk. They don't know where they want to go with this negotiation.") And they don't set limits. ("The things that they're not willing to go past. They just talk to find out what little Johnny wants.")

Setting limits with kids may involve a financial bottom line, as it does in salary or purchase negotiations, but it also means curfews or rules against hitting or coed sleepovers.

Mimi said that when she moved in with Donaldson and his three teens, she learned how he kept an emotional distance--by resisting pressure to answer the children's demands quickly. "Wendy would say, 'Can I go overnight on a weekend with boys and girls?' I'd shake my head no, but Michael would say, 'Let me check it out with the other parents.' " Occasionally, it would turn out that there were enough chaperons to make the proposal acceptable, but more often, the request would just evaporate over a few days.

Donaldson held regular family meetings where, he said, each child knew she would get to bring her grievance to the table. Each was sure she would be heard and be required to listen to the others.

No matter what the issue, or what agreement is reached, parents typically forget to close the deal, Donaldson said. "They talk. They may raise their voices. The parent says, 'Well you just have to go to bed at 10.' The kid stalks off, the parents stalk off, and then 10 comes and there's another argument." Instead, parents need to clarify the compromise, consequences for breaking the agreement, make sure the kids understand it the same way the parents do--and then shake on it or put it in writing.

One benefit of negotiating with children is that they are honest and upfront about what they want, Donaldson said. But if there's a whiff of uncertainty, they'll run with it. Once when he and Mimi were unprepared, undecided and unclear, Michael said his daughter Wendy mistakenly assumed she had their permission to stay out all night on prom night. Plans were made. Friends were involved. When they finally said no due to a lack of supervision, the emotional upheaval was momentous.

Some parents still need to learn they have the right to negotiate with their kids in the first place. Mimi said she once encountered a mother in a food court staring longingly at her plate of Chinese food. The mother wished she could have lo mein too, but said she couldn't because her whole family was having pizza. Mimi said, "I always hoped she'd buy this book."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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